Career of the submarine Squalus/Sailfish



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Submarine terms


















In 1938 the Portsmouth Navy Yard started building two sister submarines for the U. S. Navy, the Squalus and the Sculpin. They and their 14 sister submarines were the climax of decades of developing a submarine to operate effectively and independently in the long distances and warm seas of the Pacific.

In May of 1939 the Squalus began her first test dives in the Atlantic, not knowing that two sisters almost sank when diving, because of failure of the "main air induction valve" that closed the yard wide air vent to the Diesels and for the crew’s breathing on the surface. On May 23 when diving the Squalus’s main air induction failed and she sank to the bottom at about 300 foot depth with 33 survivors in the forward half. Those 33 survived because an Electrician’s Mate had bravely shut down the forward batteries before they could explode and another crewman closed a heavy hatch after letting several crewman run uphill from the flooding stern. A few hours later the Sculpin found her sister sub. Meanwhile the submarine rescue ship Falcon with the McCann-Momsen rescue bell rushed to the scene. That bell was the result of years of work by Momsen and his divers, and now rescued all 33 survivors without any getting wet. See the National Geographic DVD "Lost Subs" for four submarine disasters, inclusing Squalus. Three other nations lost submarines within a few months with no ability to rescue crew.

The Squalus was raised after hard work. Four divers earned the highest Navy award for the rescue and salvage. She was re-commissioned the Sailfish. Some called her "squailfish," and called her cursed, because she had killed 26 of her crew. The faulty air induction valves were corrected on all sister submarines.

On Pearl Harbor day the Sailfish and her fifteen sisters were in the Philippines, and were sent out on war patrols, except for two undergoing repairs. Air raids later that day destroyed the Sealion which could not be moved. A few days later the Sailfish tried to intercept Japanese invaders and in the resulting depth charging the captain had a nervous breakdown and turned over command to his executive officer.

When Sailfish returned after her brief patrol, her captain was transferred from submarines and the skipper of the destroyed Sealion, Dick Voge, took command. Voge led the Sailfish on aggressive war patrols with few successes due to problems with torpedoes. Voge was then transferred to the staff of the submarine command at Pearl Harbor where he became a critical leader in the war.

The Sailfish continued war patrols until her ninth in which the skipper failed to aggressively seek targets. Not a single target was seen; not a torpedo fired. On return to Pearl the crew’s morale was very low.

Sinking Jap Carrier
That skipper was replaced with Bob Ward, who rebuilt morale with many skillful tactics. Before leaving Pearl she was loaded with torpedoes whose exploders were rebuilt at the Pearl torpedo shop to overcome serious flaws.

After dusk December 3, 1943, following information from the code breakers, Ward intercepted three aircraft carriers and escorts after dark in the midst of a typhoon. High waves rushed over the bridge. Visibility was several yards. The typhoon made the Sailfish hard to control, but using radar she made two surface attacks, hitting a target twice that slowed it. She dived as depth charges rained down. Sonar enabled her to surface frequently to use her radar to monitor the changing situation.

None of our people knew that on two of the carriers were survivors of the sinking of the Sculpin a few weeks before who were being taken as POWs to Japan.

As dawn broke Ward saw the carrier for the first time, listing, and fired another salvo for two hits. Escorts quickly counterattacked, again forcing Sailfish deep. When she was able to look again, the sea was empty!. The code breakers at Pearl followed events from distress calls by Chuyo and Jap responses so they knew more about the attack than those on Sailfish, and kept submarine command informed. Only one POW survived and was taken to Japan to tell of their ordeal after the war.

She continued with an aggressive patrol in Empire waters, and on return to Pearl Harbor her total sunk for that patrol was the largest of any single patrol to date, including the carrier Chuyo. No one knew about the POWs lost until after the war. She received the Presidential Unit Citation for this tenth war patrol. Read part of her report!

The Sailfish made two additional patrols. In each she was one of three submarines in wolf packs. In the first she was the only one of the three to sink a ship, though they damaged several. In the second the three did "life guard" duty to pick up allied fliers who had to abandon their aircraft. Sailfish picked up 12, and sank a patrol boat. By now she was an older boat while new and better submarines arrived monthly at Pearl Harbor. Sailfish was retired, and now her fairweather and bridge are a memorial at Portsmouth Navy Yard.

Copyright © 2003, 2012 John F. Yeaman







The skipper of the Sargo, Tyrrell Jacobs, found his torpedoes failed to explode when attacking targets near Cumrahn Bay; he and some crew experimented, and found that torpedoes were running deeper than set, and they exploded early or failed. He reported these facts and was told the torpedoes were fine; Washington said so.